What Does a Nonprofit Executive Director Do?

Every organization needs a great leader. For most nonprofit organizations, the Executive Director is at the helm of the organization’s leadership.

But have you ever wondered: What does a nonprofit executive director do day-to-day? What are their responsibilities and roles?

If you are looking to explore future career options in the nonprofit sector or rethinking how to structure your organization for growth, this article is for you! In this post, we will explore what exactly an Executive Director does, identify “what it takes” to become an Executive Director and assess career demand.

What Does a Nonprofit Executive Director Do: Job Description

Job Description

A nonprofit Executive Director is the highest position within an organization. This role is responsible for directing the nonprofit to achieve its mission and determining the right talent, resources, and tools to implement programs effectively. 

To give you a sense of what an Executive Director does, we scoped out a few job descriptions that showcase the standard roles and responsibilities. Take a look at a few examples: 

Example #1: Executive Director duties and responsibilities from Indeed

Executive Director duties and responsibilities from Indeed

Example #2: Executive Director job description template from LinkedIn

Executive Director job description template from LinkedIn

Example #3: Executive Director job description from Workable

Executive Director job description from Workable

Each of these job description examples are different in wording but have similar key areas in common. Here are five common patterns between them:

1. People

Managing people and finding the right talent is a big part of an Executive Director’s responsibilities. This includes internal stakeholders such as employees or board members and external stakeholders such as partners, volunteers, or donors.

2. Operations

The Executive Director is responsible for overseeing the processes by which the organization fulfills its mission. This would include the daily activities and functions that determine how the organization operates in each department.

For example, the Executive Director would not be involved with the on-the-ground implementation of programs, but they would know the mechanics behind how each program works, what purpose it achieves that aligns with the mission, and what resources are required for the program to be successful.

3. Financial Management

Nonprofit organizations are fueled by funding. A well-run organization is a reflection of responsible stewardship of resources and effective financial management. Business decisions such as staffing, program expense allocations, and funding diversity are all part of the Executive Director's financial management responsibilities.

4. Organizational Culture

A nonprofit Executive Director’s leadership sets the tone for the organization. Creating an environment that positions the nonprofit for positive future growth is the Executive Director’s responsibility. Typically, the culture of an organization will include values, policies, and beliefs that reflect the identity of the organization.

5. Strategy & Vision

Executive Directors must have a solid understanding of the nonprofit’s mission and a clear vision of the best methods to achieve that mission. The Executive Director’s vision provides a foundation for creating strategies that align with the organization’s overall objective.

Now that you have a better idea of what the role entails, let’s dive into what a typical day looks like for a nonprofit Executive Director.

What is a Typical Day Like Being a Nonprofit Executive Director?

Office worker

A typical day of an Executive Director centers around three activities: Meetings, Strategic Management, and Relationship Building.

First, in terms of meetings, an Executive Director’s schedule is typically always full of internal and external meetings and events. An Executive Director has frequent meetings to connect with their management team members, monthly meetings to connect with all staff, and quarterly meetings with their board of directors.

In between the internal meetings, Executive Directors can be found at networking events or one on one meetings with prospective donors, partners, or key stakeholders.

Next, an Executive Director’s focus is always on strategic management. Strategic management is the ongoing iterative process of evaluating, planning, and monitoring the core functions of the organization to achieve its goals and objectives.

You might be wondering: what are the core functions of the organization? Well, you can usually find this answer by looking at the organizational chart or by reviewing the department staff list. This will give you a sense of the core department functions which typically include: programs, finance, fundraising, impact or research, marketing, and operations or administrative support.

Finally, let’s not forget about relationship building! Executive Directors work incredibly hard to build and maintain relationships.

On any given day, Executive Directors can be found making personal calls to thank people for their support or asking for their support, writing cards, signing thank you letters, or attending local events to raise awareness and extend visibility to the organization’s mission. Executive Directors have to strike a balance between stewarding existing relationships while also building new relationships that align with growth opportunities.

How Much Do Nonprofit Executive Directors Make?

Salary

A nonprofit Executive Director’s salary is dependent on a variety of factors. Even at the executive level, compensation can vary depending on the size of the organization and also the region in which the organization is operating.

For example, at a smaller organization with only a handful of employees in Florida, you could expect a salary on the lower end of the standard salary range. Comparatively, at a larger organization in Los Angeles with hundreds of employees, you could expect a salary on the higher side of the range.

Thanks to insights from Glassdoor, we know that the average salary range for a nonprofit Executive Director in the U.S. is between $74,000 and $120,000. Here are a few examples:

1. Habitat for Humanity - $62,000

2. The Salvation Army - $82,068

3. Nonprofit HR - $78,018

Two of the organizations listed above are nonprofits that you probably recognize and are well established. Both Habitat for Humanity and The Salvation Army have chapter-based structures which means that the Executive Director is responsible for a specific location and not the entire organization’s objectives.

It’s important to note that several nonprofit organizations offer salary ranges that far exceed $120,000 each year. It really depends on the size of the organization and complexity of the position. Some larger organizations with 20,000+ employees offer Executive Director’s salaries in the $500K+ range.

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Why Should You Consider Being a Nonprofit Executive Director? Is it in Demand?

Now that you’ve learned a bit more about what it looks like to be a nonprofit Executive Director, you’re inspired to become one, right? We get it. You should absolutely consider it. Here’s why:

Executive Directors make a positive impact in the world

As a nonprofit leader, you will be part of driving forward a mission that has a positive impact on the world. Your role is bigger than being a leader. As an Executive Director, you will be part of a community that is making a real difference in people’s lives every single day! How amazing is that?

By advancing your organization’s mission, you’re advancing social change within the entire ecosystem. Your mission is bigger than just you and your organization. Your contribution to the social impact sector will be significant.

Executive Directors never have a dull day

For Executive Directors, every day presents a new challenge or adventure. Organizations evolve over time and the complex problems that need solving do as well.

There will always be a new opportunity or challenge to tackle. You will never feel like you aren’t making an impact or contributing to the greater good. As an Executive Director, you will have countless opportunities to lead the organization in a direction that enables growth and achieves long-term change.

Executive Directors utilize a range of skills and build new ones too

As an Executive Director, you will have an opportunity to flex several different muscles from strategy development to communications to financial management to fundraising. You will constantly be developing and exercising new skills. Your work will vary every day and you will have an opportunity to pull different levers when you need to.

Executive Directors are always an essential role for any organization

Nonprofits need Executive Directors to drive forward the mission and vision of their organizations. The Executive Director is an essential role that isn’t going away anytime soon.

A report from the Nonprofit Quarterly shows that as of 2020, there are more than 679,000 U.S. nonprofits with $2 trillion in revenue, 12 million employees, and 63 million volunteers.

In addition, the average tenure of an Executive Director is six years. This means that there are plenty of opportunities for existing employees to be part of a future succession plan or new opportunities to lead another organization.

How to Become a Nonprofit Executive Director

Executive Director

Education/Qualifications

Most nonprofit Executive Directors generally have a bachelor’s degree and many have a master’s. Although not necessary, many Executive Directors have degrees and backgrounds in business.

Qualifications-wise, most organizations will look for anywhere between 5-10 years of past management and leadership experience. The most important thing is being able to demonstrate that you have the right skills and abilities to thrive in your role as an Executive Director.

Skills to Be a Good Executive Director

So, what skills does it actually take to be a good Executive Director? We curated a list of the top qualities of successful nonprofit Executive Directors just for you:

  • People Management: Nonprofit Executive Directors wear many hats, meaning they have to interact with many different kinds of people on a daily basis—from donors to volunteers to staff to board members. Being able to manage all these different groups effectively is key to ensuring organizational efficiency and success.
  • Financial Management: Nonprofit Executive Directors need to be goal-oriented, especially when it comes to managing the organization's budget and various fundraising efforts. While the level of direct financial involvement will vary depending on the size of the organization, Executive Directors need to have a solid understanding of the big picture financial overview of the nonprofit, its budget, and its fundraising goals.
  • Influential Leadership: The Executive Director of a nonprofit drives the organization’s culture and values. A nonprofit Executive Director needs to be able to inspire everyone from staff members to prospective donors about the vision and mission of the organization.
  • A Passion for Driving Impact: A nonprofit Executive Director should be the organization’s number one advocate. Their enthusiasm and passion for the impactful work that is being done should be evident throughout all of their interactions and public communications.

Training to Become an Executive Director

While there is no official training needed to become an Executive Director, there are a variety of different opportunities and resources available online that can help you in your journey to becoming a nonprofit leader.

For example, NonprofitReady.org offers a free, 1-hour course that covers what it takes to be an Executive Director and what challenges it involves.

For more formal training, Harvard Kennedy School offers an Executive Certificate in Nonprofit Leadership that you can complete at your own pace and is designed to help you expand and deepen your leadership skills.

Finally, you can check out different articles, webinars, and events on Instrumentl that can be of great use to those pursuing a career in nonprofit leadership. You can learn things like how to write successful nonprofit bylaws and the secrets to securing in-kind donations for fundraising events—all for free!

FAQ on What Does a Nonprofit Executive Director Do

1. What is the Difference Between a CEO and an Executive Director?

The title CEO has typically been associated with the for-profit world to reference the head of a company. On the other hand, nonprofit organizations have typically used the term Executive Director to refer to the head of an organization.

You might be wondering: but do they do the same job?

Well, let’s take a look at the roles and responsibilities of a CEO from the Corporate Finance Institute.

Roles and responsibilities of a CEO from the Corporate Finance Institute

This looks very similar to a nonprofit Executive Director! Both roles focus on managing the core functions of the business/organization while also providing leadership to drive the mission and vision forward. It seems like there really isn’t a difference between the two.

In fact, some nonprofit organizations also have a CEO position in lieu of an Executive Director. It really is just a difference in the name of the title and what corporate entities have traditionally used.

2. Who is the Boss of a Nonprofit Executive Director?

The nonprofit’s board of directors is the boss of the Executive Director. The Executive Director reports to the board and the board is ultimately the governing authority of the entire organization. It is also typical for boards to provide Executive Directors with yearly performance reviews.

3. When Should a Nonprofit Hire an Executive Director?

For most organizations, we recommend hiring an executive director the earlier the better. Once your organization has an established mission, vision for the future, and board of directors, it is probably time to bring in a dedicated leader to spearhead those efforts.

However, one important thing to consider when first starting out is whether your organization has the financial capacity to hire an Executive Director. Make sure that your nonprofit’s board carefully considers what sort of salary is a viable option before trying to fill the position.

4. Can a Nonprofit Have Two Executive Directors?

While it is possible in some cases to have two Executive Directors, it is generally not best practice and is usually something that is covered in the nonprofit’s bylaws.

It also may not be wise to split leadership responsibilities between two people—you wouldn’t want there to be conflict over different leadership styles/major decisions or for responsibilities to fall through the cracks because both Executive Directors assumed the other would fill a particular role.

Wrapping Things Up: What Does a Nonprofit Executive Director Do?

Executive Director

We covered everything there is to know about a Nonprofit Executive Director. You have learned what a typical day is like for an Executive Director and you should have a sense of the skills, qualities, and responsibilities that are required to succeed in the role.

Executive Directors are essential for most nonprofit organizations and their necessity isn’t going away anytime soon. Now that you know what it takes to become an Executive Director, you can be well on your way to establishing your own career in nonprofit leadership!

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